Cyclists, drivers entering Colorado National Monument from the east have uphill battle

As traffic approaches from behind, Kirk Golba of Grand Junction pedals along Rim Rock Drive up the steep incline from the east entrance of Colorado National Monument.



Who would believe that a four-mile stretch of road could create such a stir? It’s hardly news that cyclists and motorists often spar over sharing the road anywhere.

But the brief, hilly burst from the east entrance of Colorado National Monument to DS Road, where it breaks toward Glade Park, is one of the Grand Valley’s more scenic stretches, increasingly getting more than its share of all sorts of traffic and potential conflicts.

Switchbacks that climb almost immediately from the entrance quite literally offer breathtaking biking, both for its thigh-aching elevation gains and red-rock allure. Combined with an exhilarating trip downhill, the bike ride is ideal training for busy local cyclists to squeeze in workouts before or after work, and trips over the road’s length fill weekend jaunts. Even more bicyclists hailing from far-flung places also are discovering the monument, falling headlong in love with the terrain and its vigorous riding.

Rim Rock Drive, however, is the most direct access into town for an entire community, and Glade Park residents access the road to get up and down the valley. In addition, the monument’s scenic expanse is drawing more tourists each year who drive and bike the entire 23-mile route, spanning to its west entrance near Fruita.

Managing for the future

Incredibly, there’s never been a fatality in a bike vs. a car crash on the monument. But as traffic increases, officials hope to get a jump-start on further conflicts between users before they arise.

Any regular bicyclist or motorist has seen the close calls, whether it’s a cyclist riding recklessly or an impatient motorist.

“It is beyond belief (there hasn’t been a fatality),” monument Superintendent Joan Anzelmo said. “We are living on borrowed time.”

A look at the numbers shows a spike in usage.

Between 2008 and 2009, the monument had a 31-percent increase in cyclists, the numbers jumping from 10,177 to 13,347, year over year. And, that’s simply counting cyclists who ride when the two entrances are staffed, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Officials believe the numbers of cyclists who visit yearly is more than what’s reflected and probably will top 16,000 this year.

Numbers of non-recreational users on Rim Rock Drive, those who are traveling to Glade Park, have leveled over the years while recreational use is on the rise, officials said. Officials tally about 350,000 vehicles a year.

But the results of a six-month transportation study last year showed the monument’s motorist recreational travel could double in the next two decades, reaching an annual 750,000 vehicles.

Rim Rock Drive will be subject to a safety audit by the Federal Highway Administration to determine how much traffic and what kinds of traffic the road can handle, and how best to control the influx.

Though they may be years out, restrictions may be in store requiring cyclists to travel only one way during certain hours, Anzelmo said. Or, officials may have to consider diverting some commercial vehicle traffic to Little Park Road, a longer route that also accesses Glade Park. What won’t change is access for Glade Park residents, Anzelmo said.

Rim Rock Drive which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, cannot be widened because of its sheer cliffs. The area’s geological instability also makes road maintenance tricky.

“Statistically, as traffic grows there will be more conflicts like any other road or highway,” Anzelmo said.

“We have reached a point where it’s responsible to look at the growth rate. Rim Rock Drive was not created for the weight and traffic we are seeing on the east hill.”

A cycling mecca

Last year, the bicycling touring group, Bicycle Tour of Colorado, sent hundreds of riders over the monument for its annual ride.

Local bike tours also gain permits to traverse the monument, and for the past two years, Mesa State College was allowed to host collegiate cycling time trial races up the west end.

Possibly the largest infusion of cyclists to hit the monument in some time will be June 13 when 2,000 riders with Ride the Rockies will head up and over the monument, starting at its east side. The chance to include a ride over the monument into the more than 500-mile tour is a “huge draw” for the event, tour director Chandler Smith said.

Interest has grown among cyclists to ride the serpentine route. Some of the allure may have been partially generated as tour officials for the past two years have shown the cycling movie “American Flyer” during the annual statewide rides. The movie features a young Kevin Costner riding in the former Coors Classic, a 1980s international bike race, in which one stage included racing on the monument.

While officials work to balance the effects of special events with the needs of other monument travelers, they couldn’t ignore Ride the Rockies’ potential economic infusion for the Grand Valley.

Ride the Rockies cyclists, who will spend two nights in Grand Junction this year, are expected to spend an estimated $500,000. Tour officials estimate riders spend $250,000 per night in every town where they bed down. Day two will take cyclists over Grand Mesa to Delta.

Also, the $4 cyclist fee to ride the monument is included in the price of the tour, a boost for monument coffers.

The likelihood is good that Ride the Rockies riders, who this year hail from 48 states and 16 countries, will return on future vacations, bringing more dollars in the local economy, Smith said.

“It has that kind of appeal,” Smith said of the monument. “It’s gorgeous, and the road is in good condition.”

Entrance to the east gate will be closed to traffic for a few hours June 13, but motorists will be able to head down the monument anytime that morning.

Requests to hold events on the monument increase yearly, Anzelmo said. Some events such as a classic car ride fit in with the monument’s mission, including history and preservation, she said.

Each event request is weighed individually according to how it fits with the monument’s aim of allowing access to a range of local users and visitors and whether the financial gain to the community is deemed to be significant.

“In today’s economy that’s the responsible thing to do,” Anzelmo said of the bike tour. “It will help the community economically. We certainly cannot say yes to every request. We can’t do that (accommodate the number of cyclists from Ride the Rockies) on a consistent basis. We couldn’t do it every weekend or every month.”

Can’t we all get along?

In general, most motorists and cyclists are respectful of each other.

But motorists get angry when cyclists ride two or more abreast, ride far left of the white line and disregard posted speed limits and other traffic laws.

Cyclists, too, become infuriated when motorists do not give ample space while passing, honk needlessly, leave bikers in a diesel plume, throw things and, overall, make the road a hostile environment.

Rangers give more tickets to monument visitors from the Grand Valley than to Glade Park residents, Anzelmo said. And, Glade Park residents over the years mostly are compliant in slowing for cyclists, she said.

According to a new biking law, motorists must give 3 feet of space while passing cyclists. Motorists can cross the yellow line if there is a clear view of no oncoming traffic.

Considering the east entrance’s switchbacks, a motorist’s ability to legally pass a cyclist at any one point before Cold Shiver’s Point is sure to be tricky.

While it is legal for cyclists to ride two abreast in Colorado when there are no motorists behind, only single-file riding is allowed in the monument. That rule is commonly disregarded, officials said, but many more riders are complying with requirements to equip bikes with lights to be turned on inside the tunnels.

Officials are less concerned with cyclists speeding if riders are keeping downhill speeds at 25 to 35 mph and being respectful of motorists, Anzelmo said.

However, rangers will be cracking down in the upcoming weeks, educating bikers on keeping single file.

A common misconception among motorists is that cyclists are trying to hold up vehicles, said Dan Grunig, executive director of the bicycling advocacy group Bicycle Colorado.

“They’re not,” he said. “They’re just like any other motor vehicle but they’re the width of a bicycle.”

Grunig said it appears bicycling is gaining acceptance in the state. Colorado recently was dubbed the 14th friendliest state for bikers by the League of American Bicyclists.

Studies show, he said, that waiting a couple extra seconds to be sure it’s safe to pass cyclists doesn’t increase motorists’ overall travel times. Stoplights, it’s shown, have more effect on those times, Grunig said.

And, he said, an increase in cyclists on roads actually makes the sport safer for all cyclists, as motorists become accustomed to seeing cyclists.

It appears the most conflicts arise when motorists are not advised of cycling events and when communication between cyclists and motorists is poor, he said.

“The biggest frustration (for motorists) is when they don’t know it’s coming,” Grunig said of cycling events. “I think it boils down to both groups adopting safe behaviors.”


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